Folk music is a broad banner, under which countless subgenres come into being, thrive or suffer, and occasionally die out. The one thing that unites them all is society. Folk by its name and its nature is a societal phenomenon. When a new mode of expression is developed, it is usually a reflection of or a direct reaction to a given set of social, political, religious or economic circumstances. And when a particular aesthetic dies out it is normally for one of two reasons: either the circumstances that bore it have changed or disappeared or new modes of expression have usurped it.
There is a historical argument for conserving dying forms, and there is some value in it. But folk music is not a museum, it is a living musical language, and as such is endlessly protean and subject to infinite interpretations. Like all the best conservation projects, musical upkeep must be done with one eye on the future.
Tune-singing, or ‘diddling’ to give it its colloquial name, is widely regarded as a disappearing form. It grew up as a means of using the voice to impersonate the sounds of musical instruments, thereby enabling social dances to take place without the need for a dance band. The form still enjoys some popularity in Scandinavia where folk dances are more prevalent, but in the UK it remained pretty much undocumented until Lady Maisery came along. It is no exaggeration to say that the trio – Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew and Hannah James – have not only rescued tune-singing from the brink of extinction but given it a new lease of life.
Cycle is their third album. It follows a loose concept – the passing of the seasons and the way people react to time and ageing. But the theme is secondary to – and in some ways dictated by – the style. The idea seems to be to balance the traditional elements with a more modern, songwriterly approach, and this translates into a set of songs that revel in the old-time joy of communal singing whilst simultaneously raging against the contemporary political climate. So we get the breezy opener Sing For The Morning, as optimistic a paean to living in the moment as you are ever likely to hear, followed by a soulful, subdued take of Richard Farina’s Quiet Joy’s Of Brotherhood. But what is immediately apparent on these two contrasting songs is the vibrancy of the singing. The harmonies are exquisite, and each vocal phrase reveals a host of nuances – there is clearly some perfectionism at work here. But what comes as a real surprise is the standard of musicianship. The catchy, cumulative effect of Sing To The Morning reveals a pop sensibility, while Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood bathes in an Eastern-influenced, raga-inflected glow. It soon becomes apparent that what we have here is something far beyond a historical artefact or a simple showcase for the trio’s singing talents.
And all this before the album’s real surprise: a somehow fitting cover of Todd Rundgren’s bizarre but brilliant Honest Work. Here it becomes an angry but resigned reflection of twenty-first century Britain, a rallying cry against austerity and neo-liberal economic policies. At moments like this, you realise that no song-form is more alive than that which has a point to prove about the failings of a society. It is visceral protest music that hits all the harder for its formal and aesthetic beauty.
Scattered throughout the album are three shorter pieces, backed by recordings from nature, relating to the seasons, and providing the album with its unifying theme. The first, The Sun Returns, is an a cappella incantation full of hope and birdsong and vernal promise, while Beautiful Leaves is a crepuscular vignette, reflecting the year as it shrinks back in on itself. The Winter Of Life shows the narrator coming to terms with the brevity and smallness of human existence in the face of nature.
Perhaps the album’s highlight – and the apex of the group’s diddling – is Bagpipes/Sheila’s 70, a new piece composed by Hannah James in honour of her aunt’s seventieth birthday. It is proof if any were needed that an old, indeed almost forgotten form can sound fresh. In fact, there is a timelessness and even a placelessness about the crisp, wordless harmonising on show here – it sounds similar to Asian as well as European traditions in places. But of course, it doesn’t fit in snugly with either, precisely because it is a new composition. Instead, it forges a new path for an old kind of music, forcing it to change and in doing so helping to secure its survival.
A Father’s Lullaby is another moment of beauty propelled by Hazel Askew’s harp – a twinkling, eerie song, but full of love. So Far is pure voice: a short stab of plaintive harmony that never feels sentimental, and Diggers’ Song is a rousing homage to the proto-anarchists of the seventeenth century, whose agrarian socialism chimes in neatly with Cycle’s William Morris-inspired artwork.
Eostre, inspired by a goddess of Germanic pagan folklore, is a near-perfect example of the clarity and purity of voice that can be achieved by good tune-singing and appears to be closer to the Scandinavian tradition than the British (a link strengthened by the Hannah James’s previous collaboration with Estonian accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik). Order And Chaos filters the season cycle through Askew’s love of physics, and closing track Land On The Shore goes back to the themes of the Winter Of Life – the possibility of finding contentment in the passing of time and the weight of eternity.
Cycle is without doubt, an album stuffed full of formidable singing and excellent musicianship. But more than this, it is an album that has something to say about today’s world and is aware of its place in history. Lady Maisery are unafraid to challenge preconceptions about folk music but are aware of its cultural significance and its historical imperative. This album proves that they are worthy custodians and spirited agitators.
Cycle is Out Now via RootBeat Records
Lady Maisery UK Tour Dates
TUE 1 NOVEMBER – The Guildhall, Leicester
FRI 4 NOVEMBER – Norwich Folk Club, Norwich
MON 7 NOVEMBER – Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester
THU 10 NOVEMBER – Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk
FRI 11 NOVEMBER – Nunnington Hall, York
SAT 12 NOVEMBER – Victoria Hall, Settle
SUN 13 NOVEMBER – Rose Theatre, Chesterfield
MON 14 NOVEMBER – The Greystones, Sheffield
TUE 15 NOVEMBER – The Greystones, Sheffield
THU 17 NOVEMBER – Artrix Centre, Bromsgrove
FRI 18 NOVEMBER – Downend Folk Club, Bristol
SAT 19 NOVEMBER – The Artshop, Abergavenny
SUN 20 NOVEMBER – Halsway Manor, Taunton
MON 21 NOVEMBER – Nettlebed Village Club, Oxford
WED 23 NOVEMBER – West End Centre, Aldershot
THU 24 NOVEMBER – The Barn in Baston, Peterborough
FRI 25 NOVEMBER – Milkmaid Folk Club, Bury Saint Edmunds
SAT 26 NOVEMBER – The Hothouse, Morecambe
SUN 27 NOVEMBER – Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax
TUE 29 NOVEMBER – The Met, Bury